It's my world

| Updated on: May 12, 2011






Daily existence, as framed by children in a rehab home for runaways, under a PhotoTherapy project.

The room was filled with young adults who were clearly annoyed at having to miss their Sunday afternoon movie. But the mood altered quickly as the talk shifted to the photography workshop they had recently participated in. They were clearly proud that they had been entrusted with expensive digital cameras. Never before had they a chance to look at photography as art. After some ribbing about each other's pictures, they shared several funny stories, which said a lot about their overall experience.

Ashalayam, the Don Bosco Institution for Rehabilitated Street Children in Dwaraka, New Delhi, was the location for the photography workshop conducted for students selected from Class Nine to Twelve. Initiated by Suchitra Varadarajan, a psychologist interning at Vimhans, New Delhi, and a volunteer at Ashalayam, the project aimed to equip the children with the basic skills of handling a simple point-and-shoot camera, familiarise them with common photography terms and techniques, and introduce photography as an art form — a medium to express their creativity and emotions. In the process, it hoped to spark interest in visual art and media as a career option for them.

As a therapist, Suchitra also hoped to use photography to reach out to the older children who resisted the regular ‘art therapy', which was more popular among the younger children. She attempted to use photography to build a therapeutic rapport, alliance and trust, and to create an atmosphere that encourages the children to open up and talk about themselves.

A familiar concept in the western world, ‘PhotoTherapy' has been found especially beneficial and empowering for people on the margins, including the disabled and the socio-economically disadvantaged. It is also beneficial in diversity training, conflict resolution, divorce mediation and other related fields. Judy Weiser, a leading Photo Therapist, says photographs are footprints of our minds, mirrors of our lives, reflections from our hearts, frozen memories that we can hold in silent stillness in our hands — forever, if we wish. They document not only where we have been, but also point the way to where we might perhaps be heading, whether or not we realise this yet ourselves.

The seven-day workshop was ably helmed by G. Sethuraman, a photo-educator who runs the online camera store, whose down-to-earth classroom teaching made it easy for the boys to take great photos from the get go. Of course, there were some rules too at the workshop: give respect and earn respect; and any misuse of cameras would mean privileges cancelled. As they were allowed to work with expensive, brand-new cameras, the youngsters felt trusted and appreciated right from the beginning. In some cases they were allowed to keep the equipment overnight too.

They learnt to work in teams, put their communication skills to use whenever they went into the community to work on their essay, and face either acceptance from those who agreed to be photographed or rejection from those who did not want to be photographed.

A day spent away from the shelter on a trip to ‘Dilli Haat' provided them a glimpse into city life. As strict rules prevented the children from travelling anywhere far from the shelter after school hours, they initially displayed a lack of confidence in their new surroundings. They took some time to overcome their inhibitions and photograph in public. As some of them will soon turn 18 and move out of the shelter, this experience helped both the teacher and therapist to gauge just how prepared the children were for the outside world.

Based on PhotoTherapy principles, the workshop featured three kinds of assignments: self-portraits, creative expression and portraits. The participants were asked to explore how they saw themselves minus the influence of others. What emerged from the photographs were issues related to self-esteem, confidence and lack of it. Perhaps the children themselves did not see this, but they were certainly aware of it and this showed up unconsciously in the photographs.

The portraits enabled the children to come to terms with issues and understand their limitations. They were able to articulate their likes and dislikes. Children also unconsciously project how they want to be seen. Suchitra says many of their writings reflected a need to modify some aspect about themselves, their feeling good about their creative and athletic talents, a sense of direction for their future, and so on. But, overall, they perceived themselves as individuals with good values and a need for respect, more than anything else. Suchitra finds self-portrait very helpful in achieving her therapeutic objectives, as it helps the children understand themselves better; she sees it as a great tool to kick-start their inner growth.

For the portrait assignment, the children picked a partner to work with. They then had to take each other's portraits by following simple instructions. This exercise helped in observing how they altered their usual behaviour. How the camera causes them to become more aware and conscious. They received feedback from their peers in a manner they were not used to otherwise. Given the children's background, this session in particular helped address distorted self-perceptions.

For the Creative Expression assignment, after some lengthy discussions they selected ‘People with Unusual Skills/ Jobs in My Neighbourhood' as the subject. The objective was to bring out hidden talents and help them “see” beyond the everyday occurrences. They had to narrate it in the form of a story, which required them to use their writing skills. It also called for interpersonal skills, as the children had to approached the person they wished to photograph for their story and get their permission for it.

The children recalled some of the roadblocks they faced. The folks in the neighbourhood were initially apprehensive about their work or did not take them seriously. The subjects they had selected were often too busy to participate in the shoot; some of them worried that the photos might land them in trouble for possible violations of municipal rules. The calibre of the children's work, in terms of words and visuals, showed they could think out of the box, were creative and worked towards success given the opportunity.

Suchitra had some personal breakthroughs, as well. Following the PhotoTherapy sessions, some of the children started coming with interest for individual sessions. One child shared his deep insecurities stemming from a feeling that he was inferior to others in physical appearance. On the other hand, there was a child who resisted not only the therapy sessions but also tried to persuade others to boycott them. During the workshop he was hyper-energetic and distracted the group with his out-of-context comments and remarks. However, with patience and creativity, Sethuraman managed to get the child involved in the activities. His attitude changed the moment he realised there was creativity in him and that he was appreciated for it. Soon, he even began to take on a leadership role, thanks to the great confidence he developed in his work. Clearly, a mini-transformation is on here.

Published on May 13, 2011

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